There are no laws founded on principles of common sense. It is something that comes with experience and with experience, you will realise that sense is all too often uncommon.
Professionalism, on the other hand, is more objective. As lawyers, our employers, clients and the public have a higher expectation of professionalism from us than from other professionals. We have a higher threshold to meet, a greater expectation to satisfy and a good number of rules and regulations that tell us what we can and can’t do as much as what we should and shouldn’t.
Examples of unprofessional conduct include Shearman and Sterling trainee, Daniel England, whose holiday ‘rules’ (the typical: cheating is allowed; no anti-lad behaviour; mentioning parents salaries once a day; taking photos of sex sessions kind of stuff) caused some embarrassment for his US employer when an email from his work account went viral and landed him and his “G4” chums on the front page of the Daily Mail. The pressure wasn’t just on England, but also on his “disappointed” employer.
Most people will agree that this is not the best start to a fledgling legal career. Of course, things like this pass over time, overtaken by the next foolish young professional who is caught taking drugs. In this case, the barrister son of a senior judge who was given a police caution and fined £605 by the Bar’s disciplinary panel for possessing drugs only weeks after being called and also appeared in the Daily Mail (see a theme developing?). But this could also be the solicitor picking his nose behind counsel during a live news interview, or the magic circle paralegal identified as the protestor who flashed a policeman during the university fees protests.
There are other things to consider which you might think are much less serious, but equally harmful to your standing, status and career prospects. Although it might not be criminal, there are a few errors of judgment (or perhaps lapses in common sense) that might sound familiar to some, all of which can happen too easily but do (and have) happened:
- sending emails to the wrong person, possibly even the opposite party;
- forwarding an email chain to a client that should have stayed confidential;
- complaining about a colleague to a client;
- failing to properly disconnect a telephone call and immediately vocalising exactly what you think about the caller ; and
- inappropriate entertainment (such as taking the vacation scheme student to a lap-dancing club and groping her).
I should clarify; I cannot claim to have first hand experience of all, or any, of these cautionary tales.
Although things might not be forgiven, they can be forgotten, right? Wrong. Welcome to the 21st century. What goes online, stays online and may stick with you for the rest of your career.
You may never have contemplated you would be a lawyer while at school or possibly even at university. We all enjoy a good time and we all make mistakes. But be aware that potential employers and more importantly clients will want to find out more about you than just what you put in your CV.
Carry out an online audit
There are a few simple ways to audit your life. Start with the obvious one: Google yourself. Although not everyone will admit to it, this is essential in finding out what other people can find out about you. But don’t stop there. Set up a Google alert, which will inform you whenever your name is mentioned on a web page. Yes, it may seem egotistical, but get over it. Forewarned is forearmed.
Log out of Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and any other social media platform you may favour and then see what you can find out. If there is more out there than you feel comfortable having an employer see, get deleting, de-tagging, or up-scaling your privacy settings. You should do this regularly and always beware the ‘phantom tagger’. Many people, including senior executives, have been caught out by friends who tag them in, let’s say, compromising situations on holiday, at a stag or hen weekend or even at the work Christmas party.
Don’t feel as if you can’t have a private life. You should just be sensible about how much you share with people before they have an opportunity to know you (and your ability to do the job). Never put something on Facebook, in a tweet (or direct message) or email that you would not want your mother (or grandmother) to see. Twitter is neither a friend nor a therapist!
Lawyers might not all be in the public eye, like a politician or former Big Brother contestant, but you have expectations placed on you by your employers – either partners or clients.
Don’t let your career be undermined by foolish mistakes, or indeed more serious errors of judgment. The Solicitors Regulation Authority and Bar Standards Board have rules which must be followed and an obligation to uphold professional standards. If you aren’t aware of those rules, familiarise yourself with them and stay well within those boundaries. And always, always, use your common sense.
This article first appeared in Young Lawyer magazine on 15 January 2013 and is reproduced with kind permission